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Interview with Susan Hefuna

Bettina Mathes: What interested you in “Mapping Vienna” (a one-year site specific project in Austria’s capital)?

Susan Hefuna: What intrigued me was the opportunity of applying some of the techniques, media and strategies that have been part of my work for a long time to one particular city over an extended period of time. During those twelve months the city served as my laboratory. I created a number of nodes which, when connected by visitors and natives, form a second site, an alternative, ambiguous map of the city. I did costumes for the Opernball (annual Opera Ball Vienna), did work at the MUMOK museum, Belvedere museum, on the façade of a building, the FreudMuseum, etc. For all events I printed a postcard. I created a personal map all over Vienna that makes the familiar seem foreign, the public seem private, and which encourages questioning one’s own position while traversing the city. “Mapping Vienna” is like a drawing spread across the city. The project concludes in November with a show opening on November 19 at Galerie Grita Insam where the site-specific works will be presented in the gallery space. There will also be a catalogue documenting the project.

BM: I’d like to talk about the final intervention for “Mapping Vienna” at a storefront gallery at Berggasse 19, the building where Sigmund Freud used to live and see his patients before the Nazis forced him into exile. The gallery cannot be entered, and visitors look at the installation through the storefront’s large window. In this intervention a large b/w photograph that shows you sitting on an ‘oriental’ couch in a museum in Cairo, looking straight at the spectator is juxtaposed with a series of wooden masks hung on the gallery’s walls. The masks were inspired by those worn during the traditional Swabian-German Fasnacht (a festival the day before Ash Wednesday in Christian religions). You kept the types but used your own face to make each mask, which means you are, in a way, making the masks work for you. I wonder how far one can take the idea of masquerade. Let me tell you a fantasy: standing in front of the window, peeping inside the masks and the self-portrait evoke a primal scene of sorts — as if I was witnessing a moment of great intimacy between your self and the foreigner in you. Am I going too far?

SH: Yes, there’s definitely a personal element. For “Mapping Vienna” I chose locations in a rather intuitive and idiosyncratic way. When I saw Freud’s office with the collection of Egyptian statues on his desk, the couch with oriental carpets, it inspired me to install the masks and a black/white photo I took with a pinhole camera in Cairo in 2001. I’ve never before exhibited this photograph.

BM: Let’s talk a bit more about how your photographic work engages the personal. I’m thinking of the series of black and white photographs you took in Egypt. You inserted yourself into the stereotypical setting associated with orientalism, which for the European spectator looks realistic, while an Egyptian looking at the photograph recognizes it as staged. Would you see your work on some level as a labor of mourning, as an ongoing attempt to revisit certain spaces in order to inhabit earlier time periods, which now only exist in memory and documents of the past?

SH: I would like to quote an excerpt from Bassam El-Baroni’s text “Reframing Otherness” (2005). “In these photographs, that are allusions to late 19th and early 20th century orientalist daguerreotypes and the picturesque but stereotyping postcards of Lehnert and Landrock — Hefuna literally walks into the picture to intervene and disrupt its predetermined cultural signification […]. Despite their obvious autobiographical references, these photographs resist being labeled as self-portraits. Instead, they can be seen as representing the moments or lapses in time in which the artist has been able to subtly highjack the domineering photographic documents of cultural history, armed with little except a highly developed visual language and a sense of displacement. […] In doing so, Hefuna encourages a universal reading of the image unbound by the assuming mindset that cultural specificity and the unnecessary details of ethnicity make us fall into.”

BM: There is a certain kind of sadness in those photographs, at least for me. I do wonder whether “walking into the picture” allows for the recollection of lost or suppressed histories, histories, which are inscribed in and evoked by the physical presence of a real body.

SH: For me there is no sadness, I just try to move beyond ‘time and space’ beyond ‘belonging and not belonging’ to enter a space where there are no limits, no labels, no pre-judgments. People are captives of their own thoughts, rules, and customs; most of the time they are not able to see without judging or putting things in binary oppositions like ‘good or bad,’ right or wrong, etc.

BM: In your work you often engage and challenge the boundaries we draw to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Can you talk a bit about the Mashrabiya Screens (2004-10) you’ve made?

SH: In my experience, most human beings are not able to see the world without a screen of social and cultural projections. I discovered the shape of Mashrabiya screens — windows, blinds, various cultural forms of architectural elements — in Cairo. The Mashrabiya protects the inside world from the outside; filtering the light and cooling the inside space; allowing one to observe without being seen. For me the Mashrabiya became an abstract symbol that operates in two directions with the possibility for dialogue, rather than closure. It separates, yet also filters and joins. It signifies the ‘in-between-ness’ of being in two cultures at the same time that it reflects personal experiences dealing with cross-cultural codes.

BM: How important is the audience for your work?

SH: Let me give you an example. I started weaving words into the Mashrabiya structure in a work, which was exhibited at the Louvre in 2004. For this exhibition I created a Mashrabiya the size of a door with the writing: “Woman Cairo 1425/2004.” If you were close to the work, the writing disappeared. It was only from a distance that you could read it. In another work I produced a wooden Mashrabiya, again the size of a door, with the word “Ana” in Arabic letters. The Arabic calligraphy is placed on the threshold between inside and outside. Depending on the cultural context of the viewer, s/he approaches the work differently. It can be seen as an abstract image, a pattern or structure, or the viewer can look at it as text, reading the word “ANA”[‘I’ in Arabic], which means the work assumes another meaning. This bilingual ‘framework’ plays with coding, and de-coding, different ways of viewing in different cultural contexts. Every viewer/visitor will see what she knows. The Mashrabiya becomes a screen of social and cultural projections.

BM: Can the audience be ‘mistaken?’

SH: I would like to tell about the key experience I had when I had my first solo show in Egypt in 1992, a high-tech multimedia installation. One of my digital photographs of a Mashrabiya screen was instantly perceived as a familiar object. By contrast, all Western audiences had associated it with the Western concept of abstract art. This first-hand and unexpected feedback from Egypt was a complete surprise to me. A different audience saw the essence of the work and not its reflection, without having read any of my intentions or knowing anything about my background. From then on, my work was somehow enriched by this dual feedback: the historical, scientific, and aesthetic context of the work perceived by a Western eye, and the references that were immediately related to familiar surroundings by Egyptians. The reading of the work depended on the codes of each culture, the same form could refer to different ideas and images from the past and the present. I learned that there is no such thing as the Truth, but layers of interpretations or perceptions. The observer is responsible for what s/he sees.

BM: Another important part of your work are the drawings you make. How do you think of them?

SH: In a drawing you cannot conceal anything. It is impossible to lie in a drawing. The drawing shows everything. A drawing has no nationality. There is no time and space. It is its own universe. I always say: look at the drawings of an artist and you know everything about the artist. All I can say is that I have to draw. I’ve always drawn and will continue to make drawings. My drawings sustain me.

by Bettina Mathes

Read Bettina Mathes’ text on Susan Hefuna in the November-December issue 2010 of Flash Art International.